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When the price of potatoes fell, the family opted to diversify—now things are coming up tulips

When farmer Peter VanNieuwenhuyzen decided to forsake his homeland—Holland—to seek more land to ensure a good future for his three sons, it wasn’t thoughts of tulips that took him to Prince Edward Island.

In the Old Country Peter was a potato farmer, working his own farm of 70 acres. But rising prices for farm machinery that could make his outfit more efficient and productive made it difficult to compete with larger farms; he had no room for expansion and land prices were out of reach.

So he looked to Canada, and the province famed for its potato production. He came over on three occasions to scout farmland he could afford, and found what he was looking for—a 150-acre farm at Oyster Bed Bridge. In 1982 he brought over his wife, Jetty, and the boys—Willem, Rit and Phillip.

An idea takes root

Tiptoeing through the tulips. The brothers' own kids spend time in the fields as well. "We have good conversations driving around the fields together," says Rit. "It makes working hard more possible."

“If you want to farm, you got to love what you are doing,” he declares, then adds: “If you are looking for 40 or 50 hours of work in a week, then don’t become a farmer.”

Those values served him well as he set out in the new land, he and his sons growing an expanding acreage of potatoes under the name of Vanco Farms Ltd.

However, as is often the case, the sons left the nest. Willem, the oldest, went to British Columbia where he worked on a tulip farm; Rit completed an internship on a tulip farm back in Holland, alongside a young man named Bastiaan Arendse; and Phillip, the youngest, also went to BC, working in a greenhouse growing green peppers.

By the early 2000s, the boys began coming home; first Willem and Rit, and then Phillip a few years later. They were joined by Bas Arendse—who had come for a visit, married an Island girl and they decided to stay.

Meanwhile, prices for potatoes were dropping; Peter and the boys began looking for new ways to bring in money. They were amenable to ideas for alternative crops… and growing tulips was on top of the list.

“We had to learn a lot,” says Peter.

Rit says that they had a goal: to grow something that would earn 50 per cent of their gross farm revenues.

However, growing tulips in Holland or British Columbia or Washington State was one thing; doing the same thing in a climate sometimes described as “nine months winter, an’ three months poor sleddin’” was yet another.

Rit and Willem began experimenting in the fields to determine whether the PEI climate and soils could suit a flower native to more benign climes.

Trial and error

Prince Edward Island has a geological base of porous and permeable sandstone. Its arable soil is notably scarce in organic material. The growing season is shorter than in other tulip growing regions, the weather colder and unpredictable.

No one had ever tried to grow tulips on Prince Edward Island on a commercial basis.

It was trial and error time: experimenting with fertilization and soil, covering bulbs with straw to protect them from frost.

The sons stuck to it, with help from Bas, and governed by Peter’s mantra of hard work and perseverance. They drew strength from their close-knit family.

The key was to find a way to make growing tulips a year-round business—and the answer always came back to climate-controlled greenhouses, where bulbs could be tricked into responding to temperatures that mimic summer, spring or winter conditions—essentially speeding up the seasonal cues—a technique called forcing.

The result is more than 25 varieties of tulips blooming in their greenhouses from January to May—and between four to five million cut flowers delivered in the company’s climate-controlled trucks to florists and supermarkets in Atlantic Canada, Boston, Montreal and Ottawa.

In the field

Outdoors in spring, it’s a balm to the spirit to see some 50 acres ablaze with spectacular tulip blooms. But the flowers are short-lived: The petals are removed, so all the plants’ energy is redirected to the bulbs, which are growing and multiplying in the soil—often resulting in a cluster of small bulbs surrounding the principal bulb.

The bulbs are harvested about six weeks later. The bulblets are saved to be planted outside again in the fall; the larger bulbs are used to grow the greenhouse crop for cut flowers.

Doing it by the book

The boys harvested their first commercial crop in 2006, and the business has been growing ever since.

“Sustainability” is a key word in the Vanco vocabulary. Fields are planted once in four years and cow manure is used as a fertilizer whenever it’s obtainable. The two huge fabricated steel warehouses are heated using farm-grown straw as fuel—all part of the goal of making the operation carbon-neutral.

Bas Arendse, a six-foot-plus 29-year-old is in charge of growing the tulips. There is no particular secret to growing tulips successfully, although you do have to do it “by the book,” he says, carefully managing temperatures in the warehouses.

Quality chore time

Rit VanNieuwenhuyzen is now 33, brother Willem is 37, and Phillip 29. They’ve been involved with farming since they were toddlers, sitting on their father’s knee while he drove a tractor.

“I wouldn’t want to be farming without my brothers,” Rit says. “We work toward our strengths; we support each other.”

And just as the brothers spent good times with their father as he went about his chores, they are doing the same with their own children. “It makes working hard more possible,” says Rit. “We have good conversations driving around the fields together.”

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